Throughout the book of Joshua; from the preparation of the invasion, crossing the Jordan, the destruction of Jericho, through to the capturing of the lands and violent conquests, one is faced with the wider question ‘Who is this God?’ This essay will discuss ways in which we can understand God’s will, character, and relationship with man, through the texts of Joshua, both in their literal contexts, as well as in relation to coherent Biblical themes. In doing so, the piece will concentrate on chapters 2 and 9 - discussing both the story of Rahab the harlot, and the covenant made with the Gibeonites, in the midst of destruction and genocide.
In Joshua 2 we witness Joshua, ο υιός του Ναυή, sending spies from Shittim (2:1-2) to view the land at Jericho, before the city’s conquest. They stay at a harlot’s house, ‘whose name was Rahab.’ (2:1) The King of Jericho demands Rahab to ‘bring forth the men’ (2:3) however she claims they had already left, having hidden them on her roof. Then, Rahab confesses the Lord of Israel to be ‘God in heaven above and on earth beneath,’ (2:11) of all lands and people. This affirmation of her belief in Yahweh, and her recognition of the land rightfully belonging to Israel, is followed by an exchange of kindness, with the spies promising safety and deliverance from death providing she keeps to her oath of secrecy. One could argue this is simply a fair exchange of promises, with both parties taking the oath for personal gain, rather than necessarily being an act of kindness or love. One interpretation, stemming from the ‘documentary hypothesis,’ highlights the evolutionary process within the Israelite tradition. The tradition’s formation, and the Israelites’ experience and relationship with God, continuously moves from primitive to sophisticated stages. Thus, perhaps this passage followed by the violent texts within Joshua, reflect a state of primitivism. Chapters 2-12, in particular, speak of the raw violence of Israel, sanctioned by God, but this reflects a primitive notion of God within this specific historical context; a god of violence, tribal passion and competition. The reason for us being able to interpret in this way is due to the Israelite tradition progressing, unfolding and transforming throughout the Old Testament, and to an even greater extent as we move into the New Testament. Even within the book of Joshua, in Chapters 13-19, we find a calmer, more tedious report on land division. Furthermore, in Chapters 1 and 23-24, we are aware of a more sophisticated covenantal voice; a transformation of the war imagery found in the earlier tradition and understanding of God’s will. So, in this particular primitive context, one could argue this gratefulness towards, and acceptance of, Rahab, by God and his representatives, should be of important significance.
According to Gregory of Elvira (370CE) the fact the spies stay at the prostitute’s house is no mistake or chance. It would seem unusual for two divinely inspired messengers to stay at a harlot’s house, an immoral and socially defiled woman. For Gregory, just as Hosea is commanded to accept a harlot as his wife (Hos 1:2) it is an indication of cleansing, preservation, of fulfilment, and that fundamentally the Lord accepts and saves all Who serve and follow Him with compassion and mercy. As Rahab abandons her own will, confesses God’s work on Israel’s behalf, she demonstrates the reality of the Lord’s selection of His people, asked to call all others to his salvation. (Is 49:6) As a member of Jericho’s poorest segments of society, her oath with, and acceptance by, God’s people is an opportunity for freedom and change of life; an opportunity to reject false ways or beliefs, worshipping the Creator Yahweh. For Saint John Chrysostom the chapter is centred on the importance of repentance and faith, which ensure Rahab’s salvation. Origen similarly notes every human could be considered a prostitute within their heart, living according to ones own desires and lusts, and so this passage offers hope for those in sin, opening the door of Yahweh’s salvation to all. Interestingly, as soon as a harlot converses with the Lord within the Gospels, anointing and washing His feet, confessing Him to be the Christ, she repents and is preserved to life (Lk 7:36-50) similarly to Rahab. For this reason Gregory of Elvina tells us that this simple example of compassion, repentance and love within the context of such darkness, is indeed a foretaste and foreshadowing of the coming realities, or could be characterised as pointing to a more coherent, sophisticated, fuller understanding of God’s character and will.
We witness a contextually different, yet similar account within chapter 9. ‘All the Kings who were beyond the Jordan..the Amorites the Canaanites, the Per’izzites, the Hivites and the Jeb’usites..gathered together with one accord to fight Joshua and Israel.’ (9:1-2) However the Gibeonites on the other hand (although acting in a cunning manner) seek to make a covenant with God’s people, offering them (albeit dry) bread. Joshua makes ‘peace with them’ (9:14) Beyond the fact the Gibeonites deceived Joshua, there is a willingness on his part to make peace with those who wish to accept God’s people and will, even though they are not part of his army or group. Again, for this primitive, tribal context this would seem rare, if not unusual. Joshua, having realised the Gibeonites had deceived him, still faithfully offers them life (as servants) in the community. Similarly to Rahab, they were exempted from death (and the ban put in place for cities in the land as opposed from distant lands) as they recognise the power of Yahweh. (9:9) The central difference between the stories of Rahab and the Gibeonites, is that Rahab is included fully into the community (6:25) as opposed to the Gibeonites who are saved yet are enslaved due to their faith without good example, their willingness to be part of God’s plan yet while falling into cunningness and fraud.
Although we are able, at this stage, to argue that both texts point to a God who saves those Who decide to follow and respect His will, we are still faced with a dilemma when regarding those other groups who are later conquered and killed. The Scriptures describe those who fight against Israel as having hardened hearts (11:20) thus no longer having the possibility to change, repent and accept God’s willingness for a relationship with them. Israel had been waiting for four-hundred years in order to rightfully conquer their land, (from the time it was promised to Abraham) as the sins of the Amorites and the enemies of Israel were not yet complete. (Gen 15:16) In other words God, ‘the Lord Most High, of great compassion, long-suffering, and very merciful’ (Prayer of Manasseh 7) withholds His judgement, until one has had every opportunity to repent and believe; the Gibeonites, and especially Rahab freely chose to follow God, Whose ‘strength is the source of righteousness,’ (Wis 12:16) and ‘source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him.’ (Heb 5:9) Regardless of whether we take the brutalities surrounding these texts as literal or metaphorical, we can conclude that each group is free to choose whether or not they want to accept the God of Israel, and His people’s rightfulness to the land.
A metaphorical understanding of this violent process, which we see unfolding in our chosen passages, wiping out the opposing settlements in order to take over the land, is that of a spiritual war, simultaneously highlighting the importance of one unified nation rather than several tribes, with those against Israel representing evil and the sinful passions. For Christians, this war is known as asceticism, with its purpose being to subdue these evil desires. Lawrence Farley, though not rejecting any literal understanding of the texts, underlines Israel’s call to unity in addition to God reiterating the theme of Him constantly being with, and offering strength to, His people. Throughout this period, the notion of being one united people would still have been difficult to comprehend, as tribal membership and their independence was of paramount importance. This call for pan-tribal unity under God is witnessed from the beginning of Joshua, crossing the Jordan. The twelve stones (4:9) make a single monument, as all tribes together experience God’s power, functioning as one nation. As Christians, we consider ourselves as the heirs of the victories found in Joshua, as the Church is the ‘commonwealth of Israel.’ (Eph 2:12) Following the Patristic approach, Farley draws to our attention the typological significance; as the people of God are led to victory in the promised land by הוֹשׁ֫וּעַ, Ἰησοῦς (Jesus) as Christ the Saviour then does within the New Testament.
One could argue, such as Earl, that such methods of understanding are simply created due to our embarrassment to discuss a god who authorises violence, covering up the reality of the texts which convey divinely inspired war, that, for him should be taken purely literally. Perhaps there is an element of this. However it is important to note that the Christian patristic understanding does not reject the literal worth of the passages (as Farley reiterates) yet draws on the literal, historical contexts to convey Who God is, His compassion and mercy (seen throughout the books of the Old Testament) preparing the reader for the Lord’s revelation witnessed in its fullness within the New Testament. With this in mind, Hawk proposes the idea of the text intentionally containing ‘detractions’ from the storyline, subverting the claims of genocidal violence. Rather, for Hawk, the text is thematically about the construction of the identity of God’s people, and of course the establishment of boundaries. Again, this approach does not reject the literal accuracy, but places the emphasis on the underlying and coherent themes.
To conclude, this essay has discussed ways in which the reader of Joshua, by concentrating on Chapters 2 and 9, is able to discern Who this God, revealed through the harlot Rahab and through the acceptance of the Amorites, is; His will, his relationship with Israel and all of humanity. In doing so, the piece has discussed human conceptions of the divine within such a primitive, tribal context, where God’s compassion and mercy is yet still visible to all who desire a relationship with Him. Even amidst such violence, Yahweh’s gift of freedom to man is apparent, giving groups the opportunity to peacefully unite with Israel, His people. Furthermore, through the writings of Farley and other scholars, the essay introduces the Patristic approach to the texts; with Joshua being of strong typological significance, directing us to the all-embracing Saviour Christ, Who reveals the fullness of God’s character in the New Testament following His incarnation.
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